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Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Little Slice of Kevin: 24 Years of Home Alone



When one considers the sheer quantity of holiday-themed cinematic classics that Hollywood has churned out over the decades, some titles ring our bells more so than others for various reasons. Consider what many feel are “the essentials,” such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas with the Cranks, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and even action potboilers that incorporated the holiday spirit such as Turbulence, Die Hard and Die Hard 2. Even Hanukkah got in on the celebrations with the hysterical yet wholly unnoticed Hebrew Hammer, starring Adam Goldberg and Andy Dick.

Still, one of the most talked-about and utterly enduring films that thoroughly encapsulate the holiday season remains Chris Columbus’ Home Alone from 1990. As a notable outing for director Columbus, Home Alone has become legendary amongst the holiday classics not only because of Macaulay Culkin’s breakout performance as the kid who takes on two would-be burglars in his own house, but because of the hysterical antics delivered by just about the whole cast – including the bumbling thieves played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Indeed, Home Alone isn’t just one of the most entertaining films that Chris Columbus directed, it’s also one of the most memorable holiday films of all time.

Interestingly appealing to both the young and not-so-young, Home Alone wears its legend status proudly on its sleeve because of the way it continues to entertain and make us laugh even all these years (and improved security systems) later. Some critics have cited the film as a study in “every kid’s anarchical wish come true,” what with the main plot revolving around Culkin’s “Kevin” character and the way in which he’s mistreated by just about everyone around him, leading to his discovery that everyone in the house one morning has seemingly disappeared. This, of course, leads to Kevin’s indulgence in all those things he couldn’t do before – eat junk food, quasi-wreck the house, watch violent gangster films on VHS tapes (remember those?), run around screaming about how his brother can’t pick on him any longer and even rummaging through that brother’s stash of Playboy magazines and cash.

In reality, Kevin didn’t merely “wish his family away” as he thinks he did; they have accidentally left him behind in the chaos of attempting to get to the airport in time to make a flight to Paris. As Kevin settles into his new life in a big suburban Chicago house all by himself during the Christmas season – which eventually gets long in the tooth, evidenced by his gradual boredom and longing for his family to return to him – he takes on basic household duties such as shopping and laundry before having to become a one-kid security force against “The Wet Bandits.” The rest is comedic cinema history, as Culkin does his best to outsmart, outwit and psychologically outmatch his foes through a series of inventive booby traps, all of which have not lost their sheer hysterical luster some 24 years later.

Upon its release, Home Alone grossed $17,081, 997 domestically on its opening weekend, with domestic box office numbers coming in at $285,761,243 and worldwide box office numbers registering at $476,684,675. From a critical standpoint the film was generally well-received – even by veteran critic Roger Ebert who, while citing the fact that in reality no kid Kevin’s age would go to such lengths of invention, also applauded Culkin’s “gifted performance.”

While Macaulay Culkin himself would go on to star in the film’s own sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York – with somewhat similar success as the original – as well as some other under-the-radar child star titles like Richie Rich, Home Alone has left a blazing legacy in its wake, which makes it a quasi-standard to follow in the holiday film genre. Many fans feel the film has endured because it inspires us to look back and appreciate just how great and innocent childhood really was, especially around the holidays. Indeed, there is an underlying truth there, because when we revisit classics like Home Alone via versions such as its extras-packed and remastered “Family Fun Edition” DVD, we’re immediately whisked away to a specific (and more innocent) time and place. Home Alone, with a smattering of other holiday cinematic gems, has an uncanny ability to freeze time and remain in our consciousness because they all provide authentic lenses through which we can look at family, home and the holidays.


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Sunday, December 7, 2014

INTO THE WOODS at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Centuries old fairy tales like Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood have been told and retold so many times that it's hard to recreate them and make them feel new again.  One way would be to take familiar characters and give them a new task to accomplish, another way would be to take a look at what happens after the ''happily ever after." James Lapine's book for Into the Woods attempts to do both.

     The witch in Into the Woods, played with deliciously evil pluck by Miriam A. Laube, put a curse on The Baker's family before he was born and now his wife is destined to be barren unless they can collect four specific items for The Witch in three days time.  Desperate for a baby, The Baker (Jeff Skowron) and his wife (Rachael Warren) set out into the woods to retrieve a milky white cow, a red hood, a lock of yellow hair and a golden slipper.  It's easy to see where this is going and all of the vivid characters from each fairy tale are introduced one by one as as Stephen Sondheim's nimble, clever songs bounce along charmingly to the climax of the first act, which feels like the end of the story,  So much so, that the second act, darker in tone, is a bit harder to get through.  However the cast, to their credit, is engaging and entertaining throughout.
    The staging of this production is unique in that there isn't a traditional set, the orchestra is onstage in chairs with sheet music before them and the actors play out the scenes in front of them with the aid of only a few moving set pieces gliding across the stage and creative lighting.  The staging is so organic that the actors are chatting and mulling about casually as if they just wandered on stage and found themselves in a dress rehearsal.  In the same way that it happens with a great story teller though, before you realize it you're imagining the world they've created as if you've been there before.
    Each character has their own through line to get to their happy ever after and you can empathize with each on their journey to achieve it.  There is a lot of heart and humor in the lyrics and dialog and the performers commendably wring out every drop.  The singing is great throughout, the standouts being the gorgeously operatic Rapunzel (Royer Bockus) and Laube in the showy role of The Witch (originated on stage by Bernadette Peters).  Other standouts in the cast were dim but sweet Jack (Miles Fletcher) of beanstalk fame and Kjerstine Rose Anderson's tom-boyish firecracker Little Red Riding Hood steals every scene she's in.
    This being my first time seeing the show in its entirety, I couldn't help but think about how the film adaptation, due to hit theaters in a few weeks, will measure up. Director Amanda Dehnert's vibrant stage production, with its stripped down, naturalistic approach, reminded me of how the best stories take place most vividly in your imagination.
   

Into the Woods is running at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts until December 21.


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Friday, November 14, 2014

HBO's The Newsroom Skewers Brian Ross




    Given the rapid-fire way information is thrown at us from any and every direction today there are bound to be a few factual mistakes made in news reporting. However, when we think of mistakes we may think of a local news channel picking up a fake story online. We don’t necessarily expect a small newsteam with a small budget to have all the manpower or resources to get all the facts right all the time and we’re usually ready to forgive. However, lately there’s been a disturbing trend of major news networks picking up fake or completely inaccurate stories and running with them all for the sake of being able to say “we got it first”, regardless of the damage they may have done.
    Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated HBO series The Newsroom has quickly picked up on this troublesome and, to be quite frank, unacceptably foolish trend with aplomb by tackling the now infamous fumbling done by major news networks during the Boston Marathon bombing. As a quick refresher: notorious internet forum Reddit decided to try to crack the case on who the mysterious men (who were assumed to be the bombers) were in the security videos that officials released. As it turns out, Reddit had fingered the wrong man. But in their rush to have the latest news, many outlets disregarded fact checking, or even considering the source, and went ahead and aired the name and face of a completely innocent man, tearing his life apart in the process. The man was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the victim of overzealous individuals and news organizations competing to be the first to break the story of the moment.
    The episode, which aired on Sunday as the premiere of season three marked a tragic and terrifying moment in American history - a moment that was made all that much worse at the time by rampant speculation and falsities in the media. It was the first post-social media terror crisis the American public was subjected to and as more and more people posted their experiences, news outlets relied on these unverified accounts as fact. In the episode social media plays a role as well in identifying the wrongly named suspect and his family, who is immediately attacked with death threats. The target of much of Sorkin’s scorn was CNN’s John King, who infamously reported that there had been an arrest when there hadn’t been, leading to every other major news organization reporting it as fact as well.
    Leading the pack of false reports during the Boston Marathon coverage was ABC News, which has a history of looking to the internet’s not-so-trustworthy rumor mill for story leads in times of crisis. In a different and particularly appalling example, during the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings in 2012, ABC’s Brian Ross attempted to connect the shooter, Jim Holmes, with the Tea Party due to the fact that there was another Jim Holmes who lived in the city who was a member of the Tea Party. That’s literally the only information he was able to provide, but the fact that an anchor on a respected network made the connection gave it legitimacy to viewers.
This wasn’t even Ross’ first time wrongly fingering a suspect either. Back in December of 2009 after the attempted “Underwear Bombing” of a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit he named two prisoners, who were released from Guantanamo Bay, as the bombers. The only problem was that not only was one of their names wrong, but the man in question was in the custody of the Saudi government since February of that year.
    He’s not alone in his blundering at ABC - their trademark 20/20 program has long been the subject of scrutiny for sensationalizing stories, stating inaccurate facts, and targeting the wrong people. There have been multiple examples of courts awarding victims money from ABC News after 20/20 made false claims about them, some cases dating back over 20 years. In fact, in 2000 ABC news admitted that their then-reporter John Stossel completely fabricated lab tests and cited them as examples on air. Only when threatened with a lawsuit did the company fess up, but Stossel got to keep his job and his producer was only suspended for a month. Stossel and ABC also used video of pastor Fredrick Price out of context to make it appear he was boasting to his congregation about his massive wealth when, in reality, he was speaking as a fictionalized third party during a sermon about greed. Price sued Stossel for defamation due to the implications of theft from the church which were created by using the warped and out of context footage. The two parties eventually settled but not after Stossel and ABC had to publicly state that they had in fact used his words out of context to sensationalize and create a story out of nothing.
    Hot on Stossel's tail as the problem child of 20/20 is reporter Chris Cuomo, who is likely to be found guilty of libel for a 2012 sensationalized “expose” on the harms of internet dating. Never mind that many of the facts were magnified and over exaggerated to make the story more entertaining, or that he ruined a man’s good name in the process, Cuomo picked up a sweet new gig at CNN in the meantime, who have their own history of less than accurate reporting.


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Friday, November 7, 2014

Horror and Comedy: Why They Pair So Nicely

The horror genre has never been for the light of heart. Movies and books in this genre were made to invoke feelings of dread in readers and viewers. That being said, directors and producers have spent uncountable hours balancing the tension between horror and humor. A humorous touch here and there can pay off big when it ‘s time to bring in the gore and horror in the following scene. These two elements, when played together, can result in a work of art that leads viewers along through otherwise unpalatable scenes of violence and mayhem.



This farce about a murder-gone-wrong uses comedy as a backdrop for the horrible acts that the characters are engaged in. In a memorable scene, the protagonist stabs his erstwhile brother with a fork in several places, to no effect. In the next scene, viewers are led into the real web of violence that the other brother intends to reap upon his own family members. The levity of Cary Grant attempting a few stabs at his brother’s leg underscores the gravity of the situation and contrasts starkly with the characters’ actions.


The character of Frankenstein’s monster has held a grip on popular culture for over a hundred years in the West (which is why this 1974 film is still widely available to stream, and frequently airs on select TV channels). The character of Frankenstein lends itself to humor, and Mel Brooks and company took advantage of that aspect. The Vaudevillian song and dance act near the end of the movie offsets the seriousness of the monster’s problem with its creator and with modern life. The song underscores the actions of society as a whole just as much as it does those of the monster.


Army of Darkness takes viewers through a ridiculously epic quest to get the Necronomicon. Over the course of the film, the protagonist manages to bungle most of his efforts, but succeeds in the end. The most gruesome aspects of the movie are undercut by Ash’s antics. Instead of a hero, viewers end up with an anti-hero full of himself and oblivious to his surroundings. A cursory view of the first half of the film will leave most viewers laughing through the bloodshed.


Dead Snow (available to stream on Amazon) makes use of music for comic effect during brutal scenes. The toilet scene alone demonstrates how comedy and horror can interact. A sex act taking place on the pot, already hilarious, gives way to a murderous scene with one of the first Nazi un-dead we see. At this point, we seem to have entered the realm of Nazi ghoul fantasy, but the death proves very real.

In the end, audiences crave a little bit of respite from that which shocks them. The toughest person in the theater secretly craves a break from the stark realities of life, even as it is depicted in a fictional film. A little morbid humor can smooth things over to make us think about some of the most unsavory elements of life on this planet we have come to know.


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Thursday, October 9, 2014

“All Outta Bubblegum?” Two John Carpenter Movies You Should Watch This Month that aren’t Halloween








It’s that season once again, boils and ghouls — that season when bloggers throw around lines like “boils and ghouls.” Film enthusiasts everywhere are dusting off the seasonal staples from their VHS/DVD/Blu Ray/Beta/Laserdisc rack: movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween. While Halloween is easily Carpenter’s best known film, it’s hardly his greatest. In fact, despite everything that makes the film significant in the annals of the horror genre, it hasn’t aged exceptionally well — a lot of awkward cuts, and scenes that are supposed to be scary that ultimately come off as awkward and cheap.
If you’re looking for a few new titles to spice up your seasonal viewing, why not try these two other John Carpenter outings? Both are rich with social commentary and engaging (if not altogether believable) performances. And while genre purists might not classify either of the following films as horror strictly speaking, both contain elements of the supernatural, and both will provide a nice supplement to whatever other tripe you watch between now and November 1st.

Starman (1984)
There are a couple of ways you can integrate this one into your Halloween playlist. You might think of it as a sentimental antidote to whatever other barf-bag fare you watch throughout the course of the month. The film is a sort of science-fiction twinged romantic road dramedy. And really, how many movies out there can you say that about?

Here’s the story: Voyager 2 is sent into orbit in 1977, and within the orbital, there is a record playing in a loop which offers greetings in virtually every language on earth inviting alien lifeforms to establish contact with earth-dwellers. An alien tourist from an undisclosed planet receives the message and decides he wants to pay earth a visit. As soon as government officials see his U.F.O, they attempt to blow him out of the sky.

The U.F.O. crashlands outside the home of mournful widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). We then see a beautifully executed segment where the alien lifeform flies into Hayden’s house, and finds a scrapbook containing a hair-lock of Scott (Jeff Bridges) the widower’s hair. The alien uses Scott’s DNA to generate an exact replica of the adult Scott. Bridges delivers one of the most compelling performances of his career as an alien inhabiting his own body. He moves like a bird, and his speech patterns are stilted.

The alien decides, after his “welcoming committee” attempts to blow him to smithereens, that he will make his mothership connection at the Winslow Crater in Arizona. Jenny is reluctant to help him at first, but becomes smitten as government officials begin trailing them, with the hope of capturing the alien and autopsying him. The film, for all of its science-fiction underpinnings, focuses on the relationship between characters. There are some stunning visual effects, but the film does not rely upon them in quite the same way that Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) does.

The film is also reminiscent of those cold-war era b-movies, where the aliens are benevolent, and humans are bloodsucking bastards.

They Live (1988)
Here’s the one line summary: A former professional wrestler moonlights as an action star in this film about a drifter finding sunglasses that enable him to see the alien-reptiles who have enslaved the human race on planet earth. In other words, stop reading this article right now and pop it in!

When Nada (Roddy Piper) first dons the sunglasses, he begins to see the world around him for what it “really is.” Billboard advertisements, when viewed with the sunglasses, feature nothing more than one word commands like “OBEY.” There is an alien race amongst us, he discovers, who have settled on earth to deplete its natural resources, render humans mindless consumption units, and perpetuate filth and propaganda through mass media outlets.

While Starman offers a surprisingly sentimental spin on science-fiction tropes, They Live embroils itself in science-fiction and action movie cliches, while also offering its own unique commentary about the illuminati, and the corporations that run the world and use it, selfishly, towards their own ends. The film didn’t exactly score high amongst critics upon its release, but we’re living in a different time now. Conspiracy theorists abound on the internet, and not only are people becoming generally more conscientious about their energy consumption but there are also many websites now that cater to consumers’ interest in information on going green. What I’m getting at, is that They Live is being re-embraced by a younger generation of cult movie fanatics, whether they engage with it as a goofy popcorn movie, or as a poignant comment about the pervasive influence of the illuminati.


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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Film Review: Anna



Anna is a thriller about a man who can access others’ memories, and is assigned what at first seems a simple case but which of course turns out to be much more complex and even dangerous.

The film has an interesting opening scene. It at first feels like a routine break-in scene, with the woman startled by a noise in her home, and then relaxing when she thinks she’s safe, while we see the intruder behind her. But suddenly there is an odd detail. She walks right by a man without seeing him, and then is attacked by another man, while the first watches. She locks herself in the bathroom where the tub is overflowing. That first man is in there watching, but then is suddenly downstairs as the water runs down toward him. The focus has switched from the woman to this man, which is a nice surprise. He rushes upstairs to pull another woman out of the tub, and then he and the first woman suddenly come to in a laboratory, where Sebastian (Brian Cox) informs us, “John’s own memories are intruding.”

We learn, through a television news scene, about Mindscape, “The world’s top memory detective agency.” The news story is about a senator who is the target of an investigation involving embezzlement and blackmail, but the reporter then goes into detail of the history of the use of psychic ability in the solving of crimes and so forth. As is often the case with news footage scenes in films, it’s not quite believable. The newscaster would give just a brief account of the embezzlement case regarding the senator, but wouldn’t be likely to give a history lesson. This is just exposition for the film audience, and that’s exactly what it feels like. The exposition is handled in a rather clunky manner in this film.

We learn that John Washington (Mark Strong), the man from the opening scene, has returned to work several months after suffering from a mild stroke and is in need of money. We also learn that it’s been two years since his wife’s death, and that he hasn’t been dating in this time. Sebastian assigns him the case of Anna, a teenager on a hunger strike. His job is simply to get her to start eating. John quips, “Just tell her parents to hide the fashion magazines.”


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Movie Trailer: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Official





In all seriousness, I am legit just as excited for this movie as I was for Guardians of the Galaxy. I absolutely loved The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it was one of my favorite movies of the year. I can't wait to see this one. It looks absolutely wonderful.



The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel arrives in theaters next year (TOO FAR!)


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“They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara!”: Re-examining George A. Romero’s Dead Series




Director George A Romero began his career making commercials and short films, and even worked on classic children’s show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood before moving into horror films. His first film was Night of the Living Dead in 1968, and today, Romero is considered the Godfather of Zombie films. Without his contributions, the zombie pop cultural craze as we know it simply would not exist.




Before the Night of the Living Dead, zombies were typically portrayed as corpses revived from the dead, with pale faces and darkened eyes, responding only to voodoo. Romero created what you might call the "modern zombie". Of Living Dead’s approach to zombies, Romero explained that "All I did was I took them out of 'exotica' and I made them the neighbors ... I thought there's nothing scarier than the neighbors!"


Many believe Living Dead is still the best zombie movie ever made - people dressed in the clothes they died in and walking in a trance, with glazed eyes, killing their victims and eating their flesh, became the new standard for zombies. As exciting as fans considered Night of the Living Dead, New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, considered the actors "nonprofessional, the film grainy, and the dialogue and music hollow."


Despite the lack of respect from critics, it’s clear that without the influence of the original Living Dead, we wouldn’t have the Walking Dead or many other modern masterpieces of zombie cinema. Nowadays, the film is dissected for perceived subtexts about everything from race relations to the plight of women in patriarchal society to...you name it!





Dawn of the Dead is the sequel (although it contains none of the same characters) to Night of The Living Dead that Roger Ebert called "one of the best horror films ever made - and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying." The movie expands the ideas of its predecessor to show a larger scale societal collapse brought on by a zombie infestation. 

What's more, the film offers even more heavy-handed (although effective) social commentary by placing a virtual army of zombies in a shopping mall. Romero takes liberal jabs at mindless consumerism. As the zombies choke on the intestines of their living victims, society itself chokes on its own excesses.

Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004, and the new version was mostly well received.




Following the events of Dawn of the Dead, zombies have essentially taken over the entire world, and what remains of the military and government of the US is holed up in isolated bunkers. The surviving soldiers and scientists struggle to get along and trust each other as Dr. Logan, the lead scientist, conducts experiments to determine whether the zombies can be “tamed.” 

This film, more than any other Romero zombie film, successfully evokes sympathy for the zombies themselves, and demonizes humanity (particularly with the stance it takes on the military industrial complex.

Budget wise, Romero has said that he wanted this to be the Gone with the Wind of horror films, but his $7M budget was cut in half (though this still dwarfs the $650k budget of the original Dead film) and he was forced to adjust his vision accordingly.


Day of the Dead is (in this blogger’s humble opinion), the strongest of Romero’s earlier zombie movies, and it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves. One remake was released a few years ago, with another in production, and it’s getting even more attention now because it’s been made streamable online (visit this website for more details) and also thanks to the recently released special edition Blu-Ray disk.




2005’s Land of the Dead deals with a zombie assault on the remaining humans in the US, who have holed up in Pittsburgh and live under a semi-feudal government. This time zombies have learned how to communicate and plan their attacks, and they launch an assault on the protected area between Pittsburgh’s two rivers and an electric fence where humans have hunkered down. This one was another critical and commercial success for Romero.




This 2007 classic was independently produced, and follows an immigrant man who kills his family before taking his own life. His recently deceased wife and son come back as zombies, and go on a murder spree killing doctors and police officers, while some students learn about the resulting mass rioting and unrest and decide to turn it into a film project. Reviews for this one were mixed, though they often noted that Romero’s ability to couch social commentary in horror films remains unmatched.




This film was the biggest critical and box office disaster Romero has experienced. Survival of the Dead is about two feuding Irish families, the O'Flynns and the Muldoons. When the O'Flynn’s learn that the Muldoons are keeping their infected family members alive in the hopes of a cure, all hell breaks loose, and the National Guardsmen who arrive (veterans of the previous film) help set up a crazy blood bath from which only a few escape.


Legacy


While Romero has dabbled in other horror genres, his idea of zombies that are infected with some kind of plague and which must be “killed” again, as well as the apocalyptic settings in which these monsters duel for survival against humanity, have set the standard for most zombie films ever since. In recent times, Romero has effectively passed the torch to filmmakers like Danny Boyle, who in 28 Days Later, made the zombies faster and meaner - another evolution that is catching on in similar shows and films. In The Walking Dead, the zombies have found their own highly successful television series, while in Shaun of the Dead, dark humor and Romero-esque social commentary again holds sway.

Whatever future appearances of the undead that we’ll see on the small and big screen, it will be mostly thanks to George A. Romero’s influential interpretation of the zombie phenomenon back in 1968.


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